LAST Thursday, one of the world’s more respected democracy-rating institutions, Freedom House, released its annual report.
The results received little play in this region, for the obvious reason that Southeast Asia is one of the least free parts of the world.
In fact, among the report’s most shocking revelations is that there is only one country in Southeast Asia that can be classified as “free”.
It is likely that if you ask most people, including scholarly experts, which country that is, their answer would be incorrect.
For it is Indonesia.
Wow! How wonderful, how amazing, how gratifying. The changes there have just been stupendously positive.
When I first visited Java in 1976, it was about a decade after the so-called ‘Year of Living Dangerously’ when one dictator, Sukarno, had been replaced by another, Suharto.
Between them, these two men ruled Indonesia for more than half a century from independence in 1945 to the first stirrings of democracy in 1998.
Incredibly, it was not until the millennium eve that a basic form of democracy arrived under President Abdurrahman Wahid – and not until four years later was full liberty achieved with the election of President Susilo Bambamg Yudhyono.
So this huge, sprawling, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation has only been democratic for about six years.
Yet in the freedom stakes, it has far surpassed the likes of Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, and is rated even higher than the Philippines.
As a result, Freedom House gave Indonesia a score of 2 for political rights and 3 for civil liberties. The top score is 1, the worst, 7.
Unfairly, but perhaps predictably, Myanmar gets 7 on both counts; the same as North Korea, Libya and Somalia.
Yet unlike those benighted nations, Myanmar has held elections and does permit a range of political parties to exist, and even allows a modicum – admittedly minuscule – of free speech.
Because of that, Myanmar should really be rated ahead rather than behind Laos and Vietnam.
Quite aptly, Vietnam gets the worst score of 7 for political freedom, but oddly is given 5 for civil liberties – which, as any journalist, lawyer or churchgoer will tell you, is an aberration.
Intriguingly, Vietnam’s 7-5 rating matches exactly that of Tunisia, where an ancient dictatorship was finally overthrown last week by its long-repressed people.
The gargoyles in Hanoi’s ruling Communist kleptocracy must be glancing nervously over their shoulders and wondering if such a thing could happen there.
The answer is: Yes, it could – and it will, possibly sooner than expected if the regime continues to elevate mediocrity to the level of incompetence in mishandling the economy.
While it was shocking that only Indonesia made the fully free grade, it was satisfying to see the Philippines rated as ‘partly free’ and as the region’s only other ‘electoral democracy.’
Due to its comparatively peaceful and credible elections last May, Manila’s performance was deemed ‘the most positive development’ in the Asia Pacific region.
But that forward movement was negated by the downward trend in Cambodia and Thailand, where political rights and civil liberties were squeezed.
Noting the CPP government’s ‘consolidation of control over all aspects of the electoral process and its increased intimidation of civil society’, Freedom House gave Cambodia the black mark designation of a “not free” country.
That kind of regression was not uncommon as most Southeast Asian nations now mute criticism by staging parodies of the democratic process.
“A lot of states talk about democracy and say: At least we’re holding elections, it’s progress. When of course most of them are illiberal processes that just support the status quo,” said Dave Mathieson of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
Sadly, it recalls the late American writer John Updike noting ‘the inevitable tendency of a despot, be he king, ward boss, or dictator, to prefer loyalty to ability.’ That’s just what we see all across this region.